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Book Review: Writing Now – More Stories From Zimbabwe, Edited by Irene Staunton

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“I need an expose. How your society is being fractured … Politics. Emotion. Sort of a protest piece…”

This particular request of a character, a journalist, comes in Rory Kilalea’s contribution to Writing Now, “Unfinished Business,” which revolves around the issue of — as expressed in Upper-Case emphasis — The Old People of Zimbabwe. “We never really hear about them in the local newspapers,” the narrator ponders. “AIDS, internecine politics, nasty whites, but the old?”

Perhaps another consideration amid the instability and fragmentation of Zimbabwe society shouldn’t be so surprising. But when it comes to a laundry list of recent writings that touch upon such issues as economic hyperinflation, government corruption, racial tensions, sub-par health service, and human and civil rights violations, there’s plenty of angles to go around.

In league with some down-to-earth humor and unworldly surrealism, 28 incisive and all-encompassing Zimbabwean stories  — each comprising commentary and constituting “protest pieces” of a sort — make up this sequel to 2004's Writing Still: New Stories From Zimbabwe. From the subtle touch to the solid blow, these tales are told from the personal and humanistic perspective of varied Zimbabweans saddled with cultural and economic burdens rooted not only in an inequitable society, but one in which “the have-nots take from the have-nots" (“Unfinished Business”).

Writing Now takes it all in and spells it out with compelling characters, plots and themes, even in a story not set in Zimbabwe. In the vividly epistolary story by Farai Mpofu, “The Letter,” the main character Juba, caught illegally crossing over to the greener pastures of Botswana, experiences the tribulations of being imprisoned and breathing “the humid, stale smell of greasy armpits, groins, dirty mouths, urine and diarrhea in the unfinished pit. We starved.” But he also effectually marshals the resolve and pragmatic anticipation that “Mama, today I’m gonna sing to the stars because humanity has a blind cruelty. I’m gonna sing that I need a life, a dignity, and like the elites of this world, I need good food.”

Whatever the case, Juba figures, “It is always better to be treated like a dog in a foreign country than to be treated like a dog in your own.” Ted, the former head of the household in Ethel I. Kabwato’s “The Breadwinner,” definitely finds himself dealt with in a less-than-human manner by his family. In this account of poignancy and portentous decisions, Ted has been laid off from work, needing to defer to his working wife and facing every dawn that “usually brought with it the pain of reality. He suffered in silence.”

On the other hand, the peripatetic character Freedom, in the amusing and whimsical “These Are The Days Of Our Lives,” by Edward Chinhanhu, has many things on his mind, but loss of dignity isn’t among his ruminations as he bar-hops and meanders his way to town. Passing a cemetary, he spots "three or four groups of people burying their loved ones. For a fleeting moment, he admired the dead. Such good crowds. What pride that would give him, though he would be dead.” 

Eventually getting in a line of uncertain purpose, Freedom also gives free reign to his philosophy of queues:

    Immediately, he joined the queue. These days, when you saw a queue you had to check it out quickly because sometimes there was a food item on sale or even being given away free. You had to be cautious though, one day he joined a queue which only led him into a toilet! This one was different … Slowly the queue moved forward with some unruly people trying to jump it, and a few others selling their places for money. All forms of corruption take place in a queue…

Freedom also had some crackpot conspiracy theories, including his notion that global warming and Zimbabwe’s drought is a British and American plot. But his speculation that schoolteachers had been “pariahs of the states, supporters of the opposition, and the most wretched of the wretched” — rather than average-joe victims of government incompetence — might seem to have some credence upon the reading of Ambrose Musiyiwa's earnest and affecting “Living On Promises And Credit.”

The narrator of the story is emphatic, and wins our empathy and respect right away when he declares that “My heart was racing and my head was bursting with the ideals that had made me become first a teacher and second, a teacher in rural Freedonia.” What he didn’t count on, however, in his valiant efforts to part the red tape and deal with apathetic administrators and a variety of vexations, was a school with no furniture or water but plenty of goats. “I thought I was a teacher…” the narrator says. There had to be “Something that would make me eager to face each day…”

The following story, Vivenne Ndlovu’s powerful “Kurima,” is character-rich and less cohesive but all the more apt for that lack in explicating the confusion, political give-and-take complexities and arbitrary hurry-up-and-wait nature of land reform. The protagonist, the story has it, “felt a sense of unease about the party’s latest programme.” On the bus, he saw dispossessed people on the roadside as their homes burned down. And now the conductor came back to report to the expectant passengers that “they were farm workers who had supported their white farming boss in his bid to stay on the land. Now they, like him, had been evicted.”

Indeed, in an assessment that could just as easily apply to many of the other tales of destiny and dashed hopes in Writing Now, "It was as though Fortune had smiled on him, but her more sinister sister had tainted the gift.”

At the same time, however, such real life challenges, unpredictability and vicissitudes spur on a wide-array of tone and emotion while assuring a consistency in literary quality – and a likelihood of a third volume of fine stories from Zimbabwe to keep the issues and discourse alive.

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